A Focus On What Changes People
Esther Chung-Kim is a Religious Studies professor specializing in the history of world Christianity, including the European Reformations at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California.
Her research examines religious conflict, history of biblical interpretation, poor relief, and the impact of religion on politics, economics, and society. She regularly teaches seminars on European Reformations, Christianity and Politics in East Asia, and Poverty, Wealth and Social Change. Her next book, titled Economics of Faith: Reforming Poor Relief in early modern Europe (Oxford University Press, 2021) examines the role of Reformation leaders in poverty alleviation through preaching on Christian love, establishing poor relief in church laws, advocating for fair wages, collecting funds from donors, sharing resources with the needy, supporting religious refugees, finding scholarships for poor students, and serving hospitals and schools.
In college, Esther majored in political science, focusing on international relations but with a fair amount of American politics. She considered pursuing graduate school in political science but in a conversation with one of her American government professors, he told her that she should really like what she is studying because “You will eat, sleep, and breathe it for many years to come.” This realization made her consider why she wanted to go to graduate school in the first place. Esther wanted to write and teach about what changes the world. While politics is still a hobby, she realized that politics don’t change people. When Esther thought about what changes people, her study, experience, and observation led her to the conclusion that faith changes people. Esther shares, “I have heard and seen many instances of significant transformation after experiencing God’s presence. Since there are thousands of years of recorded narratives, I decided to pursue a Master of Divinity at Princeton Theological Seminary and eventually specialized in the history of Christianity. After a year abroad at the University of Tübingen in Germany, I returned to the United States to start my PhD in religion at Duke University.”
Dr. Chung-Kim heard about AFTE through the Catalyst magazine, which she received in her mailbox regularly as a student in Princeton. She said, “I regularly read the Catalyst and wondered who these Methodists were, especially since I was surrounded by Presbyterians.”
Then, in a Catalyst publication, she saw a call for the John Wesley Fellows scholarship program and decided to apply. One of the things that attracted her was its focus on educating and training leaders for the next generation, which is also one of her main motives for pursuing a doctorate and becoming a professor. Although she received a scholarship from Duke, she opted to take the John Wesley Fellowship instead so she could be part of the John Wesley Fellows community. She remarks, “Origen of Alexandria said that rational faith is better than simple faith because while simple faith only focuses on morals, rational faith focuses on both the intellect and morals. A John Wesley Fellow strives for both attributes.”
Esther looks forward to the annual Christmas conference because participation in the community is deeply nourishing and empowering. While the initial relationship with AFTE may have started as a financial one, it has grown over the years for three reasons. First, because she grew up in an urban setting, (born in New York City, raised in New Jersey) she avoided talking to strangers. When she attended the first few Christmas conferences, nearly everyone was a stranger; however, she shares, “The John Wesley Fellows don’t let you remain a stranger. Conversations are not limited to academics, but Fellows feel free to share about the ups and downs of life. It may not be perfect all the time but I felt more connected to the John Wesley Fellowship because I saw that many Fellows made a consistent effort to create an environment of affirmation and encouragement even in the midst of disagreement and disappointment.”
The second reason that AFTE and the John Wesley Fellowship relationship has grown for Dr. Chung-Kim is the mentorship of senior Fellows over the years. Although mostly on an informal basis, she has noticed that Fellows have focused their gifts and talents in pursuing a variety of careers in teaching, administration, ministry, and non-profit work. Many senior Fellows have generously served as mentors to junior Fellows by providing guidance on multiple levels, including job openings at their schools. The diversity of career paths has been beneficial for those considering other possible career choices because, through the JW Fellows community, they can connect to others who have walked that path.
Lastly, in recent years Esther has served on the AFTE Academic Advisory Committee that helps with planning the Christmas conference. She has welcomed newer Fellows into leadership roles as facilitators for working groups. “This is my way of giving back to an organization that has invested in my career development and I have thoroughly enjoyed it.”
Esther and her husband, Dr. Steven W. Kim and their two teenagers reside in Claremont, California.